Fort Worth students applying for Gold Seal slots

FORT WORTH -- Paschal High School's new engineering program sounds exciting, so maybe Raymond Keys will go there.

But Keys really loves playing the trombone, and Arlington Heights High has a special program for the performing arts.

"So I'm going to apply to them both, but if I get into both, I ... I just don't know which one I'll put first," said Keys, 14, currently a student at William James Middle School.

Keys and other Fort Worth eighth-graders are weighing more options this month as they consider applying for one of the school district's new Gold Seal programs.

Fort Worth revamped each of its 13 high schools with courses focused on career and college pathways in hopes of raising achievement and attracting students to all of its campuses. The deadline to apply is Friday.

Nearly 2,000 students and their parents attended a recent school choice expo to learn about the programs, and hundreds have attended various open house nights at campuses. Officials say about 2,000 students have applied electronically for the programs with many paper applications also received.

The Gold Seal programs will offer students a chance to earn certification in some areas or up to two years of college credit.

"The programs are designed to be inclusive so that there's room for every spectrum of students from the strong to the less strong," said Chief Academic Officer Michael Sorum. "We want kids to get motivated and find programs that support their interest."

Interests surveyed

To come up with the program areas, school district officials surveyed students and businesses and looked at job growth projections for certain fields.

And while incorporating new programs such as environmentally friendly architecture and video game development, officials also eliminated some programs that no longer held interest.

For example, Polytechnic High School's finance program long struggled to fill up with students. But campus administrators noticed that the most-visited booth during career night for several years was related to culinary arts, which will now be a program offered at the school.

In fact, culinary arts was one of the more popular programs students wanted, so it also will be offered in some way at South Hills, Trimble Tech and North Side high schools.

Though the district is facing budget cuts in the wake of major state funding shortfalls, officials said most of the cost to offer the Gold Seal programs will come from realignment of current resources and from partnerships with businesses or foundations. Trustees also approved about $7.5 million in bond savings to improve science lab safety features for the programs.

Growing pains

The Gold Seal plan has not come without growing pains.

At a recent board meeting, Trustee Judy Needham said she was disappointed that Arlington Heights High School was not offering as many programs as other schools. The Heights Gold Seal programs focus on the performing arts, marketing, agriculture and horticulture.

Sorum said the programs are still a work in progress and that more offerings will be considered for schools, particularly if some programs prove to be popular with students and need to be expanded.

But student interest in a program is no guarantee of admission.

Phoenix Dailey, for example, wants to be in Riverside's information technology program. But Dailey's home school is Arlington Heights and priority for the Gold Seal programs is given to students who live in a school's attendance zone.

"There's been a lot of talk about choices and options, but it's all based on a lottery system," said Janet Dailey, his mother. "That's a fair way to do it, but then I wonder how realistic it really is for him to get in."

Some students hoping to get into Paschal are also concerned about what the redesign means for them. In recent years, families have camped out for several days in hopes of securing a spot at the school, which is known for its strong academics.

For the Gold Seal programs, students will be chosen through a lottery system with neighborhood students getting the first slots. Additional weight will be given to students who have a sibling already attending a school.

After the program students are selected, Sorum said some slots for transfer students into Paschal will open up, but the number depends on how many Paschal students opt to attend other schools.

Camping out will not be banned for potential transfers, but Sorum said he hopes the new Gold Seal options will eliminate that need.

Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700